If you want to work on a personally meaningful project, here are some tips, advice, wisdom, and ideas I will give you:
First of all, work on a project you’re passionate and interested in yourself. The biggest sucker mistake I personally have made in my photography is trying to impress others. I wanted to be taken as a “serious” photographer, but trust me, this is a fruitless task.
“If you seek to please others, you seek yourself a failure.”
The reason is this: if you seek to please others with your photos you will end up compromising your artistic vision. There is no such thing as good or bad, wrong or right artistic vision. There’s only your artistic vision; and only you know whether you’re genuine or not. Never let anyone tell you whether your work is good or not. Only deternine if your work is good or not by judging it yourself; be your own critic and judge.
2. Figure out your project as you go
Secondly, realize you will often figure out what the project is far after you’re done with it. For example, I’ve been making photos in America on film (Kodak Portra 400) and 35mm (Leica MP and Contax T3) since 2013, and I worked on the project seriously until 2016. In those three years, I sought to create my own photography project on America — how I saw America, and what interested me:
What type of culture, imagery, or people exist; only in America?
Thematically, I sought to photograph a wide range of images. Images that included street portraits, urban landscapes, details, signage, and deeper social issues such as race, class, inequality, economic difference, and other social critiques I had of America:
To be upfront, this is my personal view on America:
Ultimately I’m an optimist. I love America, and I love and am proud to be an American. My parents immigrated from South Korea (mom from Busan, dad from Seoul), and I was born in San Francisco, and grew up in California (Alameda), then lived in Bayside, Queens (New York) for a while, then back to California (Castro Valley), then got into school at UCLA (government scholarship and aid), where I studied Sociology (while doing the “work/study program”, also funded by the American government). Let me not forget I’m also a Boy Scouts Eagle Scout, and I consider my political leaning to be left-wing liberal. Oh yeah, and after graduating college I lived in West LA, and more recently Berkeley, California//now living nomadically on the road (writing these words from Saigon, Vietnam).
Don’t censor yourself
Anyways, I didn’t want to be shy in my photography project. I wanted to show subject matter that others might see as controversial:
- Race: For example, issues on race, especially blacks in America (kid with gun, black cop cutout, KKK museum exhibition from the Henry Ford Museum, etc).
- Class: Inequality of class in America between the rich and poor. Lack of job opportunities and employment. Homelessness, etc.
Also, in terms of mood, I wanted to convey a critical eye; yet have some hope. I was a huge Obama supporter, and I still have faith in America, and the future of America, and society in general:
Some things I wish I knew for my project in terms of organization.
Use Dropbox to sync your files. I’ve used it since 2010, and it has been phenomenal. Don’t trust backup disks. I personally pay around $10 a month for a pro membership (total of 1tb storage), and it has been worth every penny.
I recommend this simple file structure:
- (Project Title) v1, v2, v3, etc…
For example when working on my “Only in America” project, I organized the folders as such:
The tip is this: whenever you have a new batch of photos to add to your project, just add a new “v” (version number) to the end.
For every new version, add new photos, and remove some older photos. For example, I will copy over photos from version 1 to version 2 which I like. I don’t delete the old photos, I just let them “die” in the older folders.
The tip is this: give yourself freedom to work on as many projects as you desire at once. Naturally, the photography projects you don’t find meaningful to you will end up dying on their own. I consider this the “wu wei” (Taoist) approach to photography projects; don’t force your projects. Let them complete them by themselves.
For example, a quick scan of my folder structures reveal what projects I’m passionate about. My America project went until version 22 or so. My Suits project is now on version 40.
The more versions your project has, the more passionate you are about it. And the more passionate you are about your project, the more likely it will be to a good project.
Back to organization, I also recommend to organize your folders by year. For example, I have a “Pictures” folder in my Dropbox that includes the directory:
And under every year, if you go into the directory, it will look something like this (2018 as an example):
And under each folder are my JPEG photos. I don’t store RAW photos. I believe once I’m done processing (digital, from RAW to JPEG) or scanning a photo (35mm film to JPEG) the photo is complete. This has been instrumental to keeping myself organized, and not getting distracted by thinking of re-processing or re-scanning old photos. You want to keep working on your projects, but it is also important to always be going “onto the next one”.
4. Staying motivated, or when do you know when to finish a project?
Motivation; having the impetus to continue to make photos for your project, and to keep moving/hustling. How do you know when to keep going, when to pause or when to finish?
My suggestion is this:
Work on a project as long as you desire, and publish your progress as you go.
The old school mentality was this: work on a photography project for 2-10 years, and when you perfected the project (40-50 images), you publish a book, have an exhibition, receive acclaim, then start a new photography project. To me, this worked well in the past (before the internet, blogs, social media, etc). But this isn’t a good strategy today in my opinion.
Why? I still do think that a photography book is one of the ultimate ways to publish and present and preserve your work for future generations. Yet, I think we should take an extreme strategy/approach in both ways: embrace new and modern approaches, while also embracing the old school. What this means is this:
Share photos from your project as you go, and when you’re bored with the project or you feel you’re ready to publish it into a book, print it as a book. Print your book by yourself, self publishing (blurb.com, at a local print shop, as a magazine (“zine”) format, or just make a là carte books by hand with 4×6 prints and a portfolio case.
5. Why pursue projects?
Do you want to be praised and have everyone bow to your feet, and proclaim that you’re a great photographer? Do you desire to gain immortality through your photography, kind of like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, or to create a photography project which everyone quotes as being inspirational to them (The Americans by Robert Frank), or make iconic photos that will be known all around the world (Steve McCurry and Afghan Girl)?
Do you desire to have a ton of followers? How many followers do you desire? A thousand, 10 thousand, 100 thousand, 1 million, 10 million?
Do you desire to become a world famous photographer so you can make your living from photography, to travel the world, and be adored by fans wherever you go?
To be honest, I don’t think a lot of us ever ask ourselves what we’re really trying to do with photography, and why we work on projects.
Ultimately, work on a project for yourself; almost if nobody else would ever see your photos. This will test how genuine you are about your project, because to me, there’s no good or bad art, only genuine or ingenuine art:
- Genuine art: seeking to impress yourself
- Ingenuine art: seeking to impress others
Needless to say, you should always share your work. You don’t want to work on a photography project, then just bury it in a hole. If you have a light, you must let it shine! Consider the parable of Jesus; don’t hide your candle under a chair if everyone else is wandering around the dark, bumping into stuff.
If your photos or photography project has the opportunity or chance to inspire 1 other human being on planet earth, it is worth pursuing and publishing.
NEVER STOP SHOOTING!